Friday, October 05, 2007

Movies: Atacan de las brujas.

There's so much to say about The Witch's Mirror, Chano Urueta's 1962 masterpiece of Mexican horror cinema, that I can't think of any clever way to start my review. So, let's cut to the chase, right? You Screamers and Screamettes are busy folk and you ain't got time for pussyfooting around. Here's the skinny: The Witches Mirror is one of those rare films that genuinely deserves the title of "overlooked classic." It ranks up there with other classics from the decade including Robert Wise's The Haunting and Hitchcock's Psycho.

That's a bold statement, but The Witch's Mirror (neƩ El Espejo de la Bruja) will take the Pepsi challenge against any landmark early-'60s horror flick and more than measure up.

Let me make the case:

Exhibit 1: The director

Film buffs might recognize the director from his handful of acting roles in American flicks, most notably in his performances in Peckinpah's Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. But, as a director, Urueta's career stretched back to the silent era. His first directorial gig was on El Destino, a 1928 Mexican silent. After establishing himself as a talented director, Urueta went north of the boarder in an effort to make it in Hollywood. The project that was to have been his big American debut was plagued by bad luck and the flick was eventually scrapped. Prematurely washed up in Tinsel Town, Urueta went back to Mexico and worked behind the scenes for legendary Russian director Sergei Eisenstein, who was then in Mexico shooting documentary footage after his own rejection by Hollywood (however, unlike Urueta, Eisenstein's bum's rush from Hollywood was given extra urgency by the State Department, who deported the director because he was a commie). After his tenure with the Russian master, he settled into the Mexican film industry, cranking out more than 100 flicks before his death in 1979.

Now, exposure to directorial legends is no guarantee of directorial prowess. Keep in mind that Spanish horror hack Jess Franco spent some time working for Orson Welles. But Uruerta seems to have been a bit of a sponge when it comes to film-making techniques and approaches. His films, mostly genre flicks, have a real technical polish to them. These aren't B-grade flicks churned out to make a quick buck. Uruerta, long before it became the SOP of indie film, combined technical proficiency, an encyclopedic knowledge of film, an edgy zeal for envelope pushing, and a genuine love for genre pictures into a smart, entertaining approach to making movies.

Exhibit 2: The flick

The Witch's Mirror tells a convoluted tale of murder, black magic, mad science, ghosts, and revenge. The picture opens up on Sara (the witch of the title) looking into her mirror (the mirror of the title) and showing her goddaughter, Elena (not anywhere in the title), that her husband, the wicked doctor Eduardo, plans to do her in and marry Deborah. Elena refuses to believe her witchy godmother (why a Satanic witch is anybody's godmother is never explained). Desperate for help, Sara appeals to her master, the head honcho of Hell himself, to protect Elena. Satan says, "Sorry, she's scheduled to go" and refuses to help. Before the night is out, Elena is poisoned by her husband.

Flash-foward: Eduardo marries Deborah and brings her to the castle-like mansion he shared with Elena. There, Sara, kept on as the housekeeper, and the ghost of Elena begin to torment to couple. In an effort to resist the ghost, Eduardo breaks the titular mirror with an oil lamp. The flaming oil magically covers Deborah, who was reflected in the mirror along with the ghost of Elena. She survives, but her face and hands are roasted away.

Determined to restore his new wife to her pre-sizzle beauty, Eduardo begins rebuilding her face using skin retrieved from the stolen corpses of recently deceased young women. His quest to save his wife's looks get obsessive and, eventually, he actually commits murder to obtain a pair of hands for Deborah.

Witches are, if horror films are any indication, heroic grudge holders. Sara summons the spirit of Elena to posses the hands Eduardo intends to give to his new wife. The transplant is successful, but, while test-driving her new limbs, Deborah attempts to strangle Eduardo. It is the vengeful ghost of Elena that now controls Deborah's limbs. And she's got plans for Eddie. Stabby sort of plans.

Witch's Mirror's effective plot, a pleasantly over-packed mix of horror tropes and melodrama staples, alludes to everything from Eye's Without a Face and The Uninvited to Hitchcock's Rebecca and Welles's Kane. It's all given extra punch by Urueta's direction, a shadowy and stylish visual approach that brings to mind the best of Unviersal's classics horror flicks while, at the same time, embraces so many effects and tricks shots that one is reminded of early Hitchcock. Furthermore, Urueta spices up the flick, especially some of the later scenes in Eduardo's human chop shop, with a level of casual gore thcat, while perhaps a bit tame by modern standards, must have been truly shocking for the time. The dismembered corpses – handless and headless in several cases – and the furnace in which Eduardo and his assistant methodically dispose of the bodies distantly foreshadows such banally evil slaughter houses as the Hewitt place and the disposal area in Hostel.

Exhibit 3: The DVD

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that CasaNegra, a DVD production house dedicated to high-quality releases of classic Mexican genre flicks, did a bang up job on this disc, even down to the menu screen. Watching these older, often neglected flicks is too often a masochistic undertaking that requires you squint at a crappy print of the flick and strain to hear a murky soundtrack. Mirror looks and sounds great.

The defense rests, your honorses.


Anonymous said...

Uncharted territory here.. Never picked up many foreign horror films.. Other than Cronos, see at the Dog St Theater, no less, freshman with some girl I met during orientation of course.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

Do mean Spanish-speaking horror flicks or foreign flicks? Or did you manage to Japan's prodigious horror output as well - from Godzilla to the current J-horror crop?

Anonymous said...

I've seen like four of these Casa Negra DVDs out at a couple retailers, and they had me wondering whether or not I should shell out the money.
I hadn't considered checking if Netflix had them available.
But I didn't come across this title yet.
Very interesting!

What an interesting mixture of elements!

There's also a number of interesting horror DVDs coming out that I've been reading about.
Coppola's BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA is coming out as a 2 disc set, I think. Maybe not, but it definitely has commentaries and features and it sounds cool.

But this Casa Negra company sounds great, too.
I think I read that NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES is coming out in a new release, too! Another Mexican horror film, not necessarily a classy one, but still...